St Mary’s during the First World War

How strange that the First World War helped assure the future of St Mary’s. It was from this time that the number of boarders increased to a level that secured the school’s finances. With airship attacks in London and the east of the country, parents, concerned for the safety of their daughters, began to see schools such as St Mary’s as a safe option. From 38 girls on the register in 1914, there were 65 by the end of the war.

Through these years, life went on very much as normal within the school.
A new Headmistress, Marcia Matthews, arrived in 1915. She was keen that the girls received as broad an education as possible, free of disruption, while being well-informed about current events and contributing to the war effort. She delayed the start of afternoon lessons to allow more time for sports, walks and gardening. The pupils had regular drill lessons, a form of regimented physical exercise and, when travel restrictions allowed, lacrosse, netball, tennis and cricket matches were arranged against other schools. The grounds of Bowood were used for a cricket match against The Royal School Bath in the summer of 1917.

The increase in pupil numbers meant that the school needed additional accommodation. St Prisca’s was the first acquisition after School House, providing boarding for a dozen girls, a kitchen for cookery lessons and two rooms for the kindergarten. With two boarding houses it was possible to have house matches and when the Company system started in 1917 inter-Company events began. There were regular lectures, and societies and clubs flourished, the Literary and Debating Society debating in 1918, ‘The position of women has been improved by the war’: a motion lost by 16 votes.

The summer of 1917 was fine enough for all meals to be in the garden, and the pupils walked the countryside around Calne. On one outing to the White Horse in Cherhill, they watched as planes flew in and out of Yatesbury army camp. The Fourth and Fifth Form girls were able to identify the planes, as earlier in the term they had visited the camp and been given a tour by a major. While there, they had also seen toys made by some of the 800 German prisoners of war in the camp.

With war ever in the background, St Mary’s became increasingly involved in helping the war effort. Money was raised for different war charities through concerts and sales of needlework. An entertainment was put on in the town hall, and wounded soldiers were given an evening of ‘music and recitation’. A lance corporal in the 4th Hampshire Regiment, imprisoned near Baghdad, received letters and parcels from the school. Produce from the gardens went to the kitchen and the pupils knitted clothing and made cloth bags for hospitals. In 1916, Miss Matthews encouraged each girl to do war work in the summer holidays and to produce an essay about it.

At the end of the war, Marcia Matthews reflected on how St Mary’s had emerged from those years ‘so safely and with so much vigour’. She encouraged the community to ‘prepare for their part in the great reconstruction’, and how there should be ‘no ignoble slackening’.

Image – Hanging flags on the door of School House on Armistice Day 1918